Aspiring space tourism firm Virgin Galactic (Las Cruces, N.M.) reported the successful completion on Oct. 10 of the first free flight of its six-passenger suborbital space vehicle, the VSS Enterprise (formerly SpaceShipTwo). Released from its mothership Eve (formerly WhiteKnightTwo) at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13,700m), the composite-airframed craft was manned by Scaled Composites (Mojave, Calif.) test pilot Pete Siebold and his copilot Mike Alsbury.
The principal flight objectives were to demonstrate a clean release of the spaceship from the mothership and to conduct a piloted free glide and landing at Mojave Air and Space Port (Mojave, Calif.). The test also verified that all systems worked prior to and following the clean release of Enterprise; evaluated the initial handling and stall characteristics; qualified the craft’s stability and control against predictions from design and simulation work; and verified the expected lift-to-drag ratio of the spaceship during glide flight. “The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly,” noted pilot Siebold of the craft, “especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the world’s highest-altitude gliders.”
Preflight preparations were extensive. Test pilots flew Eve 40 times before attempting the Oct. 10 free flight, including four “captive carry” flights (spaceship mounted beneath mothership), with the most recent captive carry on Sept. 30.
London, U.K-based Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson was present during the successful test. “This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin. For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world’s first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port,” he said, “and it was a great moment. Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year.”
The flight put Virgin Galactic in a commanding position to be the world’s first commercial spaceline. A reported 370 customers have made deposits totaling $50 million toward future flights — enough to require more than 60 flights from the soon-to-be-finished Spaceport America in Las Cruces.
“To see the world’s first manned commercial spaceship landing on a runway is a sight I always dreamed I would behold,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, also present at the historic flight. “Our challenge going forward will be to complete our experimental program, obtain our FAA license and safely bring the system into service.”